Why Perugia is Italy’s hidden hilltop gem

Perugia, Italy.

 PERUGIA - Although the name Umbria Jazz might be misleading, the music festival located in “the green heart of Italy” has much more to offer than just jazz. Delia Rowland visits Perugia to experience the culture of a city once as powerful as Florence, but now widely overlooked.

 As the men in white uniforms from Osteria Numero 13 serve up sumptuous plates of norcina and risotto con tartufo nero for their local patronsa late afternoon bell rings out from the Piazza IV Novembre. Aperitivo hour ushers in a vitality throughout the town which fizzles like the prosecco in their aperol spritzes. Students gleefully socialize post-lecture along the steps of the Catedrale di San Lorenzo while shopkeepers along the Corso Vanucci step outside for a smoke break and a taste of the summer sun. 

 There’s truly no place like a central piazza in Italy. 

 Unlike central squares in London who’s only compelling attribute in the modern sense is its centrality, this piazza, like many others in Italy, functions like it did in the Middle Ages. Not just as Roman forums for religious and political meetings, but more fundamentally, as the city’s cultural cuore

 Of course, it’s not totally fair to compare Perugia to London, as this Italian countryside town is nowhere near the size of England’s capital. In fact, all it would take to fit the entire population of Perugia in London would be two nearly full Wembley Stadiums. 

 When descending into the city’s local airport, which boasts about twelve flights a day, there’s a sense that Perugia is easily overlooked if you aren’t careful. From this vantage point, the lakeside town resembles a hilltop dust speck hidden among a sea of green. 

 As the drive to the city center is underway, the speck becomes bigger, and the roads become windier. The friend of a friend who was kind enough to show me around, Lorenzo Berna, explains that the city was once used as a fortress to protect from enemy invasions. 

 “Perugia is scattered with archways and chunks of city wall dating back to the Etruscan era,” he says coolly as we narrowly avoid scraping different varieties of Fiats on our race to the top.

 Although every road in the historic city center of Perugia leads to Piazza IV Novembre, none seem to be straight. Or amassing in space, for that matter. But the chaos of it all doesn’t seem to faze Lorenzo. 

 These roads are most busy in the summers when Umbria Jazz takes place, their annual music festival. The event brings Perugia to life with musical events happening all throughout the city. For nine days, local bars host musicians while bands play along the street and off balconies. This July, the music festival celebrates its 50th anniversary and includes headliners like Bob Dylan and Mika who will be performing on Santa Giuliana’s storied stage. 

 Fortunately for me, as a vulnerable passenger, it isn’t currently Umbria Jazz. 

 As Lorenzo intermittently turns back to me to divulge a factoid on Perugian history, I feel my grip on the door handle tighten. Currently, he’s explaining the medieval history of the Rocca Paolina, our first tourist attraction of the city.  

 “What is now an underground exhibition, only a fraction of its original size, was once a fortress five levels high which Pope Paul III Farnese of the 1540s ordered into creation after successfully winning the Salt War.” 

 Ah, the Salt War. Bloody clashes spurned on because the Papal State had finally taken their power one step too far and raised the price of salt. In subsequent rage and rebellion, the historically resilient Perugian people began making their bread without salt. 

 “It’s called testone, and it’s my favorite,” says Lorenzo with finality. 

 We take our first escalator from Piazza Partigiani, a standard parking lot, up to Rocca Paolina and then up another to Piazza Italia. The buildings, monuments and fountains in this piazza were erected to celebrate the final unification of Italy in 1860. Today, it affords locals and tourists alike the privilege of looking out into the rolling hills and vineyards of the Umbrian countryside. 

 Historic hotels in this area include the luxurious and classically decorated SINA Brufani and Hotel de la Rosetta, a modest but charming accommodation option. 

 I learn as we enjoy the views that Lorenzo is from a nearby town called Città della Pieve and that he writes guidebooks, pamphlets and historical papers on the region of Perugia (not to be confused with the city of Perugia). His pride for his hometown is palpable and wealth of historical knowledge envious. 

 “In its true identity, Perugia is an unknown city. Between the 11th century and the 13th century Perugia was one of the richest and most powerful cities in Italy, in everything equivalent to Florence. Not many people know this,” he explains. 

 Once the Fontana Maggiore comes to view, a masterful work of medieval sculpture, there’s a sense that not much has changed since those ancient battles with nearby towns vying for Perugian control. Not just in the way bread is made, but in the deep pride of the people.

 We take a seat on the cool church steps next to throngs of Italian teenagers who are meticulously accessorized and perfectly coiffed. The vague smell of chocolate lingers as a tourist family unpacks their half-melted Baci bars. I catch sight of the Eurochocolate store across from me. Mental note: try Perugina chocolate.

 As the sun begins to set, it’s officially time for aperitivo. 

 Lorenzo leads me down a narrow walkway which once functioned as an ancient aqueduct, past the pink walls of the world famous Università per Stranieri, and up another hill towards the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino. I’m surprised when we take a swift right down an unassuming alleyway, but as we continue down the path, I begin to hear the faint sound of a DJ set playing house music. 

 Tucked away in this little clearing we find il Giardino, a bar with tapas, colorful umbrellas, and a spectacular view of the back of Perugia. Other worthwhile aperitivo spots with a view include Punto di Vista, Ristorante del Sole and il Birraio. 

 After our drinks, hunger strikes and I’m ravenous for the best authentic Italian pizza Perugia offers. 

 “It’s got to be Mediterranea or Verace, just depends on who you ask,” says Lorenzo as we tackle more hills and winding paths back towards the center. 

 A firm fan in the Mediterranea camp, we take our margherita and diavola pizzas per portare via on our lazy meander back to Piazza IV Novembre to revel in Italy’s favorite pastime: people watching. 

 “What escapes most is that by coming to Umbria you enter into the history of Italy,” begins Lorenzo between mouthfuls of the slice which he has folded like a taco. 

 “The case of Perugia is emblematic in this respect. In fact, walking through the streets of its historic center, you take a journey from the Etruscans to the Renaissance, through places that still pulsate with life today.” 

 He pauses. 

 “This does not happen everywhere, quite the contrary.” 

 He’s right. 

 As the men in white uniforms serve up digestive shots of limoncello and amaro for their satisfied patrons, an evening bell rings out from the Piazza IV Novembre. Nightfall ushers in a halcyon throughout the town which burns dimly like the end of their hand-rolled cigarettes. Students languidly descend post-party along the steps of the Catedrale di San Lorenzo while restaurant owners along the Corso Vanucci step outside to retrieve their tables and close-up shop. 

 There’s truly no place like a central piazza in Italy. 

 The 50th anniversary of the Umbria Jazz festival will take place in Perugia from July 6 to 17 this year. Tickets can be reserved at www.umbriajazz.it.